Unfortunately, there’s a lot more we don’t know about North Korea. We can only speculate on some of the off-the-books ways it makes money. We’re not entirely sure which U.S. cities it could hit with its nuclear missiles. And we only have an inkling of how a nuclear attack on U.S. soil would impact our country.
While we know a little bit about Kim Jong Un, we know next to nothing about the day-to-day lives of typical North Koreans. What jobs do they have? How much do they make? What do they spend their money on? We know Kim Jong Un may live a life of luxury, but most North Koreans struggle just to get by.
1. How did we get here?
First, a little basic background for the uninitiated. Early in the 20th century, Japan ruled the Korean peninsula. After World War II, the peninsula was divided with South Korea under the sphere of influence of the United States and North Korea influenced by Soviet and later Chinese ideals. The 38th parallel divided the two countries. The North’s attack on the South triggered the Korean War that ended with a cease-fire (rather than a treaty), which means the two countries are technically still at war. South Korea has developed into a thriving nation and economic powerhouse. North Korea, ruled by the Kim family, has endured decades of struggles.
Next: In North Korea, you wind up where you start out.
2. Income and opportunities determined from birth
When the Korean War ended, Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un, consolidated power and instituted a class system known as songbun. It was and is the inverse of the social hierarchy from the Japanese colonial days. Where farmers, teachers, and businessmen were considered social elites under Japanese rule, it is the factory workers, laborers, and those in the military who occupy the highest social ranks now.
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3. A typical job in North Korea
In a country where nothing, not even the internet, is run of the mill, the term “typical job” has a different meaning. Mina Yoon, writing for NK News, says North Koreans don’t have the freedom to choose their jobs. They are assigned jobs by the government, and those are the jobs they’ll do until they die. Yet for the most part, the types of jobs are the same as anywhere else: farming, laboring, factory work, and military. Serving in the military might be the most common line of work. According to a CNN report, North Korea has 1.2 million active soldiers and 7.7 million reserves. The estimated population, according to the CIA, is more than 25 million. That equates to more than one-third of North Koreans being in the military.
Next: The kinds of jobs every North Korean wants
4. Two desirable lines of work
Most work in North Korea is menial labor — hard work done for little pay. But there are two kinds of work that are most desirable.
Though the two countries are technically at war, South Korean companies employ North Korean laborers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. A report from NPR says those jobs are some of the best in North Korea, not only because of the good pay but because of the excellent working conditions.
The other desirable line of work is anything that provides access to foreign currencies. Not only are they high-profile jobs important to the North Korean economy, but workers have chances to earn bonuses based on their performances, according to one defector.
Next: The question the world wants to have answered
5. How much do North Koreans make?
This is the question everyone wants to have answered, but the truth is we might never find out. North Korea is a secretive place, so any information on the economy is speculative. The CIA estimates $1,700 per capita income as of 2015, but a BBC report estimates it may be as low as $1,000 per year. As we are about to see, however, salary means next to nothing.
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6. No internet at work (or at home)
While you probably have internet access at work, home, and even on the go, there are only about 1,000 known IP addresses in North Korea, according to CNN.com. Unless you have a high position in government, you most likely wouldn’t have internet access at all.
North Korea has more of an expanded intranet simply called “Bright.” CNN also discovered the country only has about 5,500 sites, and people use it primarily for studying and accessing government agencies and information. The North Korean internet is all about disseminating information and not entertainment.
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7. Economic reform typically hasn’t worked
In simple terms, the North Korean ethos is that the state and its leader trump all. And since the country was founded on communist principles, it is the state that provides for its workers. In recent years, however, even that hasn’t been enough. According to NK News, currency reform in 2002 led to rampant inflation. The same thing happened in 2009. The same article estimates as much as two-thirds of the population get no government help and provide for themselves, and we’re about to see how they do it.
Next: North Koreans keeping it on the down low.
8. The black market is rampant
When North Korea was wracked by famine, citizens started trading goods and services as a way to get by. It was basically an open market where demand set the prices, and open markets, whether officially sanctioned or not, continued to thrive. A report from Vox indicates there are hundreds of markets employing thousands of people. The same report estimates 40% of the population earns at least some income from open markets. As the Financial Times writes, the black market economy has thrown currency values out of whack. Yet this is what passes for sweeping economic change in North Korea.
Next: Just how corrupt is North Korea?
9. North Korea tied with Somalia for the most corrupt country in the world
Somalia has taken the prize for the most corrupt country for the past 10 years, but North Korea’s giving it a run for its money, CNBC reports. The way the country makes money may have something to do with this corruption, too. CNN reports bank hacking has become a large source of revenue for Kim Jong Un and his regime, and there’s also forced labor for industries like mining, logging, and construction.
Because of Kim Jong Un’s ongoing tyrannical ways, the British Medical Bulletin suggests the ruler himself may actually feel as if the violence and corruption in his country are totally acceptable and normal. And the citizens, of course, are put through great psychological distress.
Next: What does the future hold?
10. Progress, in some form, could be coming
As we have seen, North Korea’s economy is a unique monster. There is no job movement, a caste system basically determines lifelong social standing, most work is menial, wages are low, and attempts at economic reform haven’t worked. Yet for all the negatives, there could be positive changes coming. Despite Kim Jong Un’s public defiance and secretive ways, the market economy seems like a boon to the nation. Rhee Yoojin, a researcher for the Korean Development Bank, tells NK News that Kim’s efforts to boost light industrial production have helped the economy. But she also notes that the growing market economy could lead to some turmoil down the line. As with anything in North Korea, what happens in the future is likely to be tumultuous, chaotic, and for the benefit of Kim and his inner circle.
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